The departure of Elliot Schrage indicates a new era for Facebook, I hope, of corporate introspection and reactivity. Schrage is a deeply talented communicator and thinker who was even closer to the center of power at the company than most accounts suggest. But it was essential for heads to roll at the company, and he appears to be the first designated victim. Schrage headed both public policy and corporate communications—an intrinsic conflict.
Corporate policy work is meant to flow in two directions, in and out. Policy bosses marshal not only advocacy and lobbying to affect regulation, but also hold fingers to the wind, listen and engage with critics, and ought to bring a thorough and ideally unbiased account of those criticisms or proposals back to management. Companies need to anticipate problems so they can prepare for them.
Communications, by contrast, is a more outside-focused activity, primarily tasked, in the typical modern corporation, with managing perception and encouraging positive feeling about the enterprise, glossing over failures, and keeping the stock up and to the right.
It doesn’t take a 12-year Facebook observer like myself to see that Facebook has mostly failed on both counts in the past couple years. Its public image is egregious. The only positives any of us hear about Facebook’s social and political impact come from itself, and are uncompelling. Amazingly, outside advocates or surrogates have not been deployed by the company to argue on its behalf in the press and on television. Opinion about the company both in the United States and globally has become almost completely negative, with the important exception of Wall Street. Investors, after a brief scare, are happy. So if just keeping the stock high was the top priority, no heads ought to have rolled. But society has noticed other priorities about this uniquely influential company.
Engagement with critics has been periodically promised by the company, but just has not happened, even though Facebook is helping engender a global crisis of democracy, a global crisis of privacy, contributing to a global crisis of tech addiction, etcetera. On the rare occasions I have heard of critics being invited inside to speak to the company’s top leadership, listening and corporate humility has not been much in evidence. In at least one incident, COO Sheryl Sandberg ended up essentially shouting at messengers of bad news.
For one person to at the same time oversee both policy and communications is a problem, I believe, in a company so centrally immersed in contemporary policy evolution, at a time when tech and regulation are evolving at warp speed. The person burnishing the corporate image should not be the same one charged with understanding and reacting to policymakers and governments. To be focused primarily on image management is likely to distort one’s perception of how those actors need to be reacted to.
There does appear to be increased activism by the company’s long-dormant board of directors. Their role has always been peculiar, since in the end all decisions at this company depend on one person, Mark Zuckerberg, who holds absolute voting control. But one can only imagine daily conversations board members have had with friends in recent months. “You’re on the board of Facebook—how could this have possibly happened?” “Does Mark ever actually listen to you?” “Did you people realize the extent of the electoral manipulation? Why not?” “Why didn’t Mark tell the EU the whole truth?” And so on.
So the board has begun tightening the screws such as it can. I am quite certain a majority of them want heads to roll, and would otherwise have trouble with their conscience. Meanwhile, genuine reforms are underway, even if they are insufficient and late. Those reforms, to be clear, will never be sufficient until they involve an ongoing and deep interaction with outside actors, regulators, partners, and critics. This is a commercial company playing a civic role, unprecedented at this scale.
So what should happen? If Facebook wanted to have truly effective public policy programs, given its global civic impact, it would hire someone of the stature of Barack Obama or Bill Clinton or Kofi Annan to perform that function. Only then might Zuckerberg listen and even defer on the myriad vexing and difficult-to-resolve questions the company’s social weight pose.
One positive sign—Zuckerberg seems himself to be getting more worried by the day. When the New York Times article today by Sheera Frenkel notes that “there was some internal pressure for Mr. Schrage to leave…said three people with knowledge of the discussions,” that means Mark wanted him to go. No real pressure ever exists at Facebook except from him.
Schrage was always primarily Sheryl Sandberg’s person. She brought him with her from Google at the time she was hired in early 2008. It’s possible this tight relationship and his protectiveness toward Sandberg may have impaired his effectiveness as Mark’s advisor, since Sheryl and Mark’s priorities are increasingly diverging. She is the brilliant business creator. He is the social visionary who wants global community. These issues are not necessarily in synch, as I explained in this recent essay in Time Magazine.
There are plenty of reforms needed at this uniquely influential company, and let’s just hope that they may come quickly.